The funeral was at eleven o'clock on Saturday morning, though I would rather have put it off for at least another few days, just in case Esther came, but they were unwilling to agree to refrigeration for any longer, even for an extra charge, the woman in the office citing some new regulation, and asking why I didn't go for cremation, it was cheaper anyway, as well as much more practical, and would mean I could pick a time that suited all the family; to which all I said was that I was not going to cremate my mother, so let it be on the Saturday, then, if there was no other way, and paid for the three-day storage in advance, for which she gave a receipt then wrote into the delivery book "seven hundred and four – coffin – Saturday – Kerepesi Cemetery", then put some papers in front of me and indicated with a ball-point pen that I should sign.
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Anyway, for a second I had this image of her sitting up, only this time not clutching the bentwood chair, but then Esther came to mind: what if she were to come back after all, because I would have liked her to see the wizened body, the gnarled fingers, with the nails that had been chewed down to the quick on that last evening and the seven eternity rings on them, from the Julia-of-the-Season ring and the one from the poetry lovers to the ring for the Moscow Festival, the gilding on all of which had rubbed away long ago and which had stained the bases of the fingers green or black, depending on whether they were made of brass or aluminium. I wanted her to see the straw-yellow hair, sticky with lacquer, on which, year by year, the hair-dye was smeared ever more unevenly and through which her ashen-grey scalp glistened; and, taut again from rigor mortis, the breasts on which back then, after barely a month and a half of suckling, she had smeared salt so the nipples would not lengthen, but what I would have liked most of all was for her to see that dead look, not a whit different from that in life, the bluish glimmer of which, from Saturday onwards, would be lighting up the depths of a grave that had been waiting empty these fifteen years, because it had been impossible to close the eyes.
There was no need to send out any death notices, since she had seen no acquaintances for a decade and a half by now, and anyway I didn't want anyone besides Esther to come out to the cemetery. Besides which I loathed death notices; there were some thirty of them in my mother's drawer. They had forgotten to cross her name off a number of VIP lists, so even the year before last the postman had brought one, which she had read over and over again for days – poor little Winkler, yet how sharp he was as Harpagon, well isn't it just terrible that even outstanding actors like him... that no-one is spared? Frightful. Simply frightful. Don't ever forget that, my boy, today Winkler, tomorrow you. No two ways about it.
Sometimes she would dig them all out of the drawer and lay them on the writing table, one next to the other, like some game of patience. They were greasy from all the handling, like a Gypsy woman's fortune-telling cards, only one could read from them a good deal more precisely the time of death, and whether with tragic swiftness or after prolonged suffering. She would shuffle the black-bordered cards around for hours on end, grouping them by date order, by age, or even religious denomination, sipping mint tea as she did so.
Protestants live, on average, six and a half years less than us. That is no accident. That sort of thing is no accident at all, son, she would say.
I'm sure you're right, mother, but I have to work now, I would say, and she would go back to her room and calculate once more who lived the longest.
Last Sunday I went to the provinces for a reading. It wasn't the money so much as claustrophobia that led me to accept such invitations. I did the shopping, prepared cooked meals in advance, then locked the door on her, still hearing the 'And when will you be back?' even after the second turn of the key.
I'll do my best to make it for tomorrow evening at the latest, mother, there's soup in the fridge, don't forget to warm it up, and switch the TV off at night, I told her once again, only this time to the door, with its double-locking mortise-bolt fastening, on top of which she placed two safety chains, not without reason from her standpoint, in the same way as it was not without reason from her standpoint that she had equipped herself with fire extinguishers and disinfectants and a Wertheim safe, and not without reason that she got me to open her post for weeks on end after seeing on TV what had been left of some prime minister or mayor after opening his own letters.
Shreds, my dear, they showed the shreds around the writing desk, she said, and raced to the toilet, as if she were only entrusting the opening of the envelopes to me because she needed to pee. Then one night, of course, she knocked on my door, halted at the threshold, because if I was at home she would never enter, and started to go off about you want to kill me with these ciggie fumes, and I said I'll air the room in a minute, mother, but she just stood there in the doorway.
What's wrong, mother, I asked.
You know very well. Don't read my letters. It's my life, my own life, and you have nothing to do with it, is that clear? So I said, fine, then I won't open them from now on, but it's really time you lay down, because it's three in the morning, and in the last few months I wrote her no more letters.
I went off to the train station on foot, barely thirty minutes' easy walking, and I needed the exercise. I regularly stretched my legs a bit before going anywhere, even if only to go to the shop; I always took a circuit in the Museum Gardens or around the block as I prepared to utter sentences that did not end in Mother. Though that, as it stands, is not quite accurate enough. I had to prepare not merely to utter other kinds of sentences, but also to make other kinds of movements, another kind of breathing. The first few minutes always counted as a sort of no man's land, given that for fifteen years the seasons had succeeded one another, the Danube flooded, and an empire of shame disintegrated between the when'll-you-be-back and the where-were-you. Everything had happened between the when'll-you-be-back and the where-were-you: brokers had founded religions and chartered accountants rewritten the Revelation of St. John the Divine, tornadoes had been named for female singers and earthquakes for politicians, fifteen Nobel peace prizes had been awarded, and the same number of old women had escaped by boat from the world's last island leper colony. Between a single when'll-you-be-back and where-were-you three sets of social legislation and three hundred satellites had came into being. In Asia three languages were declared dead and in Chile they had made three thousand political prisoners disappear with the help of a mine collapse. From when'll-you-be-back to where-were-you the nearest 24-hour convenience store had gone bust and a swindling service-charges collector had worked his way round the district; the old postman had gone blind from methylated contraband vodka, and the entire soil of a cracked main sewer had gushed up like a geyser. Equally, between those same two questions, the caretaker in our apartment block had kicked the foetus from his own daughter's belly, because 14-year-old Emoeke told him she loved the PT teacher with all her heart and she did not want to go for an abortion, and her father had kicked her in the belly the first time when Mother asked when'll-you-be-back, and Emoeke was already through the first operation by the time I had got back from Esther's and lied that I had only been to a concert.
I planned that, having now agreed to the reading, I would see it through, come what may, since I was going there of my own free will. So, if there were to be questions, then I would answer them; after all, the reason one is invited to a village library is so one may have questions put to one: Why do you write? What are you working on at present? Are you happy with the success you have achieved, or did you count on more? ... and I even noted down a few ready-made answers on a slip of paper, so as not to have to rack my brains there, because I'm rather slow, my impromptu answers are generally inept, and there have been occasions when I almost curled up and died of shame, as when I agreed to go on a live television chat show where the frontwoman was interrogating three writers, and when my turn came round to say why I write, then all I could think of was that Mother would now be sitting before the TV, drinking her mint tea, and when I got home would ask where-were-you-son... so what I said on the programme was that writing was a coward's way of committing suicide, though the very next moment I sensed that I ought not to have said that, and the frontwoman promptly pounced, saying that, off the top of her head, she could list an encyclopaedia-full of writers for whom suicide had been more a matter of a length of rope or a goods train, and from that point on chatted only with the other two writers, who undoubtedly supplied much more carefully considered answers, whereas I sat for thirty minutes in the light of the flood lamps as if set on the dunce's stool on account of one misbegotten sentence..., and when I got home, Mother asked where-were-you-son, leaving me here half the day, even the TV isn't working, though I knew very well that there was nothing wrong with the TV, and after the programme she had simply turned the channel switch so as to make out that she had seen nothing.
After that I got used to having ready-made answers always on me for such occasions, and for a while now I have even asked journalists to give me their questions in writing, then spent two or three evenings on it before giving some acceptable response to the handful of why's about which the readers of literary periodicals or women's magazines are evidently curious. Not that the answers became in any way definitive; indeed, as a matter of fact they lay a good deal further from the truth than an incoherent I-don't-know-myself or I'd-like-to-know-myself, but they were at least comprehensible and ingenious, so I did not need to be ashamed on their account, and anyway, what the hell, I decided that I would try to meet those expectations, which by the way are fully justified, and if there were to be stuffed cabbage and the odd drop of slivovitz after the reading, then I was going to down the odd drop too and was not going to feign indisposition like I did six months ago, when I sought to get out of a supper that was to be spent with the local mayor and his cronies, and the act had been so convincing that I was still unable to leave off even long after I had installed myself in the pub next to the railway station.
The pointsman took me back home, so I spent that night at their place, and each time the bloke went out to switch the points the wife replaced the cold compress on my brow.
"That's the midnight express," she said, laying on the headscarf, dampened with well-water.
"That's the one-twenty slow," she said, dipping the rag in the bucket again. When it came to the three-fifteen goods, I yelled at her to cut the crap, you bag, at which the woman burst into tears and begged her husband to go off on his bike to fetch a doctor, but the bloke said there was no need of any doctor, because it was nobody's business but my own and the one I had yelled at.
I was awakened by the racket of the ten-forty-five, not a bit worse for wear; the pointsman, slumped against the window sill and its box of geraniums, was dozing in a chair, the railwayman's cap that had slipped back onto the nape of his neck shielding it from the summer sunshine, whilst the wife set down scrambled eggs with onion and a mug of tea in front of me, then plonked herself down at the far end of the table and mutely watched me eating as she shucked peas or beans. For minutes on end all that could be heard was the pointsman's snores, the plopping of peas or beans into the basin, and the clink of the eating implement on my plate, as if those three sounds had been swelling the universe since the beginning of time... with the fork always tapping on the china at the moment another pod popped open in the woman's hands, and the three of us went on playing this universe-swelling music until the signal bell on the points sounded, or nothing was left of my scrambled eggs, or the bowl had filled with beans, I no longer recall which, not that it matters.
"Do you have any cigarettes?" the woman asked.
"I'll get some in the buffet-car," I said.
"There is no buffet-car," she said, and extracted three Symphonias from her husband's pocket.
"Thank you," I said.
"Take this as well," she said, and filled a lemon-juice bottle with Nescafé.
"Thank you," I said.
"Take care," she said.
"Thank you," I said, and the twelve-ten slow finally got me back to Pest, though there was a moment when I managed to convince myself I would never make it – that the Hungarian State Railway no doubt had another one-room service cottage with a tiny service garden at some railway junction somewhere.
... so when I got back home Mother refused to greet me, because I was half a day late. She just sat in front of the idiotic TV tube, stirred her mint tea with a great clatter, took her valerian drops, later went to straighten her silk peignoir in front of the mirror she had filched from her one-time dressing-room, then rattled with the two safety chains on the door, out in the hallway, and only after that did she station herself before my door. I heard her rasping breath for minutes on end, caught a whiff of the almond odour of her sweat, and knew she was now preparing her little speech, so I put my pen down and rehearsed my own spiel, because that's what we've got used to doing, and then she finally burst in.
Where-were-you-son, she asked, although she knew exactly where I had been.
Giving a reading out of town, Mother.
I forbid you to read all that garbage.
Why's it garbage, Mother?
You know very well. You are not to write any more obituaries of me.
They're short stories, Mother.
It's disgusting, what you write. Garbage. Disgraceful garbage. All figments of your twisted imagination.
That may be, Mother. You may be right, but lie down now, it's gone three o'clock, I said, and from her own point of view she really was right, since most of my acquaintances imagined my mother must have died years ago. A thicket of appreciative reviews had already overgrown the life's work that had been erected to her; ashen-faced one-night stands pumped me about her, though rather than answer I would get dressed and ask where the nearest bus stop was, because there would have been absolutely no sense in relating between two copulations that my mother was very well, thank you very much, only she hadn't set foot outside the house for years, not even onto the outside corridor.
This translation first appeared in Hide and Seek. Contemporary Hungarian Literature, eds. Györgyi Horváth and Anna Benedek, foreword by Györgyi Horváth. Budapest: József Attila Kör 2004. ISBN 963 2171 80 2
Original in Hungarian
Translation by Tim Wilkinson
© Attila Bartis/Magvetö Kiadó 2001
© József Attila Kör 2004 (English version)